The concept of an office suite, with word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software, is one that is well understood by users, which is also why it's often difficult to improve them. Users already expect their office suites to do certain things, making the job of office suite developers often one of fit and finish.
That's the case with the new open source OpenOffice.org 3.2 (OOo) office suite release this week.
OOo is included in nearly every Linux vendor's distribution while also being available for a number of other operating systems, including Windows. With the OOo 3.2 release, developers have fixed bugs, made the suite faster and improved compatibility with file formats from Microsoft.
The release also comes during a period of transition, as Sun Microsystems -- the leader of the OOo effort -- is now part of Oracle. While Sun has been directing OOo, it has been joined by multiple participants in the OOo ecosystem, among them Novell, which considers itself to be the No. 2 contributor to OOo development.
"One of the problem with such a big project is that getting big headline features every three months is relatively difficult," Michael Meeks, distinguished engineer and leader of Novell's (NASDAQ: NOVL) OOo efforts, told InternetNews.com. "For me, what matters most is that our users are happy, we fixed loads of bugs, little crawly, nasty, wiggly ones that sometimes caused crashes but also some missing features. For me, that's quite exciting that the quality is improving and continuing to get better."
A key area of improvement in OOo 3.2 over its predecessor OpenOffi ce.org 3.1, which debuted in May 2009, is a noticeable improvement in startup time for the application.
Meeks noted that startup time is a very important component of user experience and one that will keep on improving.
"You can start in a handful of seconds now, but it's still too long, in my view," Meek said. "But it's a lot better than it has been."
One of the drivers for faster OOo startup time, according to Meeks, is the use of OOo on netbooks. Additionally, he said there is a perception that fast software is good software, and it's something that users now expect.
Another improved aspect of OOo 3.2 is its compatibility with Microsoft Office file formats. Novell has an interoperability agreement with Microsoft dating back to 2007.
"I can assure you that we don't have any secret knowledge from Microsoft. Mostly our job is to look at public formats, specifically OpenXML (OOXML)," Meeks said. "Microsoft also published the binary file format documentation under their Open Specification Promise. So there are some good things that Microsoft has made available, and that has helped to fix bugs."
The Open Specification Promise is a Microsoft initiative that opens up its specifications for use by developers. It has been criticiz ed in the past by some open source groups as not going far enough in protecting developers from potential intellectual property violation risks.
Among the OpenXML improvements in OOo 3.2 is the ability to open and save Calc spreadsheet files in Open XML, which is the MS Office format.
Sun, Oracle and OpenOffice
Moving forward, as OOo transitions to life under the stewardship of Oracle (NASDAQ: ORCL), Meeks is optimistic that it will be a very good thing for OOo.
"Our participation hasn't changed, but not all of our work goes to Sun," Meeks said.
He added that over the years, there have been various issues about control and project features, which is why Novell also has its own open source version of OOo that provides additional interoperability features over the main Sun release of OOo. And then there's IBM's own Lotus Symphony With Oracle now in charge, Meeks hopes that divisions in the OOo community will be resolved.
"OpenOffice is unusual in being very fragmented, we have IBM's Lotus Symphony, Novell's version, and Sun's version," Meeks said. "We could do more together, but it's a matter of getting conditions right and I'm optimistic Oracle will do a good job here."
"I'm full of optimism. Oracle has had a good track record of engaging in some open source project and I'm encouraged by their Linux engagements," he said.